Br Peter Eghwrudjakpor, OSB
Priory of St Benedict, Ewu-Ishan, Nigeria
Forum for Dialogue
between Western Monasticism and Nigerian Traditional Culture
Western Monasticism is fairly new in Nigeria even though the African is contemplative by nature. We can only live the monastic calling as Nigerians and Africans, and not as Europeans or Americans. True, we received the gift from the West but we cannot live it as Westerners. And BECAN is a forum for this on-going dialogue of similarities and differences, on how to be Benedictines and Cistercians monks and nuns in contemporary Nigeria, and yet arrive at the goal of every monastic life.
In the Beginning
The establishment of BECAN highlights a number of factors that were visibly present in the milieu of its establishment and which by and large are still with us today. Monastic life is both new and foreign in this country. Also, as is the case in some other parts of the African continent, struggles and difficulties, mostly social-economic in nature, abound. Hence, the pioneers of Nigerian monasticism saw the need for mutual and fraternal support, the need for stronger ties among the different monastic communities. Though not clearly stated at its inception, BECAN saw one of its goals as that of forging stronger links among the Nigerian monasteries in order to tackle with greater confidence the numerous challenges that are peculiarly Nigerian.
These early BECAN fathers and mothers recognized the fact that the traditional culture of the people has its own richness, which is imbued with values some of which have correlation with Christian values and monastic values. The question, then, was how could the newly arrived Western monasticism dialogue with African culture, Nigerian culture?
Most of the pioneers of Nigerian monasticism that are still alive today agree that the idea of an Association to embrace both the Benedictines and the Cistercians here in Nigeria came from two people: M. Mary Charles Anyanwo, OSB, of Paschal Monastery Nike-Enugu, and Fr. Columba Breen, OSB, of St Benedict Monastery Eke–Enugu. However, ‘the first recorded event in the history of BECAN was a monastic seminar that was held in the Benedictine monastery at Eke on April 17th, 1979. The participants at that first meeting were: from Awhum, Fr. Mark, Br. Paul, Br. Gerard, and Fr. Thomas (USA), M. Patricia from Umuoji, M. Charles from Nike, and from Eke, Fr. Columba Cary-Elwes, Fr. Columba Breen, Fr. David, Br. Colman Hingerty, Br. Vincent Mordi, and Br. Peter (from Igueben).’(1)
Since then, regular meetings have been held in the various monasteries of the Association, which has grown from the four represented at the maiden meeting to sixteen today, all bound by the Rule of St Benedict. The Association continues to be a source of enrichment and encouragement for all the member communities, part of the original idea.
One way the superiors in the course of the annual meeting inform, share, support and encourage one another is through the ‘House Report’ that is usually presented by each community and is distributed to all the superiors. This is an important aspect of the week-long meeting. It is expected that the report will touch on every aspect of the community, from economy and finance to its prayer life and relationship between the monastery and neighbouring community as well as strained relationships within the community and its observances. At the end of each community report, there is space for observation, reflection, comments and suggestions when this will be useful and necessary. The quality of this report is often indicative of the level of openness and trust which one finds in BECAN as a family. Today, there is greater trust and openness, and superiors today are not as defensive and self-protective as was the case once upon a time.
There is also a major shift in the way BECAN understands itself and its role. In the past the family saw itself as a ‘loose association’. Thus, no community interferes in the matters or life of any other. The walls round each of the monasteries in that epoch were very thick with red flags flying high. It is a different concept today. The first real sign that BECAN was taking itself and its role very seriously came in a circular which was produced at the end of the 2008 BECAN superiors’ meeting held at Paschal Abbey, Nike, in April, and signed by all the superiors there present. Among other things, this circular reads:
• The BECAN superiors have delegated each BECAN superior to bring to the attention of the community members what had emerged in this year’s meeting.
• Considering itself from hence forward not just as a loose association but as a family strongly bonded together, BECAN is now eligible to be appealed to, when anything goes wrong in any of the BECAN houses. BECAN can always delegate some of its superiors to mediate in such a way as to bring peace and harmony in any house.
This was a big shift from the previous stand that each house was completely on its own; thus even when there were troubles or when things were perceived to be going wrong, no one was able to intervene or comment. And this never helped the family, which came to realize that at the end we are all affected where there are rumblings, earthquakes or chaos in any community. We share in one another’s joy but so too we share in each other’s wounds.
The most recent BECAN meeting, held in St Benedict Monastery, Ewu, in April 2011, took this departure from the concept of a ‘loose association’ a step further. At this meeting, the superiors stressed that henceforth more space and time should be given in the annual reports to the real struggles, difficulties and challenges in the community and less given to the economic activities. Secondly, the superiors insisted that a status-document is to be drawn up that should serve as a guideline for BECAN, what it stands for and its role. And thirdly, at this meeting an executive team of three superiors was instituted with some authority (which is to be spelt out in the status-document) to intervene and act on behalf of BECAN as a body, whenever issues are brought or referred to BECAN.
Common Fund, Common training Ground
Since 2009, after the meeting held at Mount Calvary Cistercian Abbey, Awhum, the superiors have created a common purse. There is an annual levy on each community, as a way of building this fund. The idea is that part of this money is to fund the affairs of BECAN and those of the BECAN Formators.
The Association has also decided to establish a common trainingground for its monks and nuns. This project is currently in process. The plan for this Institute has been designed to be constructed in one of the BECAN monasteries.
The importance of formation in the life of any community led the Association to create another forum specifically for the Formators of BECAN communities. This is a larger forum since its participants are persons having any role in initial formation. This forum, simply known as ‘BECAN Formators’, has its activities regulated (though indirectly) by the superiors. Their annual week-long meeting occurs every second week in November. This, as in the case of the Superiors’ forum, is both an opportunity for mutual support and exchange of ideas on formation, as well as an avenue for in-group training, renewal and updating for the Formators themselves. Once in five years the Formators organize for themselves a month-long Monastic Institute which is always tagged ‘Formation of Formators Workshop’.
1) Fr. Andrew Nugent, OSB, ‘From Eke to Ewu: Entering the Promised Land’ in Silver Jubilee Reflections (Ewu, 2004).